I can’t leave the house when Baba and Byron are off on a hunt. I fear I’ll get in their way, or inadvertently shot through the thick, dark trees. I make too much noise anyway. I don’t know where to put my feet. Most of my daily duties are limited to the house and the makeshift vegetable patch beyond our porch. But I never understood their logic when cautioning me against making sudden noises in the forest. They say I can scare away prey. After all, the forest is full of unfamiliar sounds.
In the morning the trees are alive. They wave their long arms towards the sky, arms that are close to disintegrating into endless blue as brown and black flecks disengage from them. Chickadees open their wings and let out high-pitched shrieks, waking us up.
Dee dee dees echo around mountains tipped in blue that grow paler and paler until they fade into sky. The chickadees’ voices grow frantic when danger is near. But what is danger? Danger is Everything, Baba and Byron say in response to my growing questions. Everything is dangerous.
During the day the wind roars through the trees around us. We can hear it in the vast expanse of once-forested hills where swaths of land have been cut and emptied for roads leaving ravines with tunnels running through them. The roads hardly matter; half the routes are covered in potholes, rocks and fallen oak, maple, birch. The rest sink into the ravines. The wind approaches us with a deep whoosh. Like running water that can knock you over without soaking a hair on your head. The invisible river always surrounds us, a reminder of the flood, keeping hunters and women on their toes.
Don’t cook anything you pick from the forest floor. Don’t try to find a watchman. Don’t venture out. Don’t talk to strangers. Danger is outside the thin fence bordering our garden. Everything inside is safe.
STRANGER DANGER. The first slogan they teach girls entering North American sanctuaries. The first thing they scream at the younger ones. If your English is bad then be wary. Now that my belly sags and hands are rough, I wonder if I should be less worried for my safety. The slogans feel trite and inadequate, like Baba and Byron’s protests.
In the evening it doesn’t matter if I crash through the woods with an ax, screaming wildly at the top of my lungs. My voice is overpowered by the chirping of birds and crickets. Well, less chirping and more a cacophony of whistles and screams, as if they were battling to outdo the ever-constant wind. But what do I know about hunting and the dangers outside? Neither my father nor my husband will let me handle their guns. We don’t have enough ammunition to last the oncoming storms. Between each barrage of thunder and lightning, there are long, dull breaks where I find myself staring out into the woods waiting for something to happen.
I am tempted to step out, shake the tree branches, and watch them react. I enjoy disturbing the ant colonies nestled under their trunks. I appreciate their activity, regularity and commitment to their monotonous existence.
I encourage my son to poke them with a stick. Their tiny black bodies splinter from a united whole into frantic chaos, their goal shifts from transporting food to escaping this vast missile descending from above. But Reza does not like to harm them so I take the stick myself, putting more force into each jab until each anthill is a disintegrated mass of dirt. I get an odd satisfaction in their evictions; it gives me something to do.
When Reza dozes off each night in my arms, I watch his delicate face, and large dark eyebrows like mine. Face a deep brown like his father’s, jaw narrow like his grandfather. I hope he is different from them.
There isn’t much sense in the way we go about things. Baba says as long as we stick to the house, wait for supplies and fend off the scavengers with empty guns, we’ll manage. I think he is being absurd. Others in this area moved out west long ago, leaving behind destroyed homes. All that remain are sticks propped up against each other like pitiful teepees. Perhaps we are meant to return to the ways of the people who first lived here. They preferred walking barefoot in the forest, wailing mournfully up at the trees with paint on their faces and leather around their waists. I saw pictures of them in old school books being distributed with the firewood, but their kind vanished long ago.
Some old houses still have a door left standing, or a windowsill, though the rest of the structure collapsed long ago. Faded pieces of torn cloth hang from them, smelling like damp water with hints of flower patterns peeking out from under graying rags. Baba, before he started rambling, would tell me to stand under the doorway in the event of an earthquake. While everything else inevitably collapses under it, a doorway is the only thing left upright.
Strange. For a man who spent his youth in and out of jails in the old country, shouting from rooftops trying to topple his government, Baba has a lot of faith in the one here. But then again, this government took him and his daughter in when they found he was good with machines. They wanted scientists and engineers, the smart ones who could rebuild towns.
They handpicked us from a leaking boat that traversed oceans, bringing us to safer shores. But the little girl trailing her father with a torn suitcase and a moldy grey shawl thrown across her mousy hair, no one knew quite what to do with. My throat was parched, and I tasted the sour bile of days-old vomit long after we were handed packets of toothpaste and toothbrushes. I couldn’t comprehend the new faces, some hostile, and some dripping honey-sweet kindness. For days I longed for the tumult of the seas. The sullen stability of this new land left my ears ringing and my body restless.
Early Saturday morning, soon after the rain stops, Baba pulls off the leaves and smaller branches from the elms around our house. Before dawn, we hear a thundering crash outside. Reza tumbles into our room, diving first onto Byron’s sleeping form and burrowing in between us. Byron simply mumbles and rolls away from me, teetering dangerously on the edge of our bed and pulling the quilt with him. At the same time, a gust of wind shakes open our shutters, slamming them against the windows. I feel cold hands press across my bare belly and wake up to Reza shivering and crying softly against my chest.
The men came back, he says. They tore down the trees and are tossing them into our garden to burn. They all burn Baba-joon alive and take Papa to the mines where he will die.
Reza has regular nightmares that become more vivid as our loneliness grows. And we are lonely, or at least I am. The last people left three months ago. I run my hands through Reza’s curly hair. When he was born, his hair was like Byron’s — familiar yet unfamiliar to me. A mass of kinky curls that only became thicker as he grew faster. Now at five years old he looks too small for his age. His tiny head is overwhelmed by the dark halo around him. Byron used to cut Reza’s hair, twist it into locks that he tied back. But for three months Byron has been neglectful. Byron sleeps flat on his belly, his face turned away from me and his arm flung over the edge of the bed. His fingers trace the carpet, twitching slightly every few seconds. His curled hair shows signs of grey. His mouth is slightly open and his white teeth gleam against his dark brown face. Before he hurt his leg, he slept closer to my side of the bed, with his arm pressing down on my belly when I was newly pregnant, and my body was starting to expand into an unfamiliar form. At the time I felt wonderfully filled, the loneliness of years of sickness and uncertainty vanished. Byron liked tracing the dark line running down my stomach, imagining it was our son trying to poke his way out.
The wind whistles through the cracks in our shutters. The wood mildewed. Byron had promised he would fix them, but most days he spends wiping down his rifle, dragging buckets back and forth from the steadily receding pond behind our house and washing the front porch.
This morning, the truckers don’t come. Baba had been impatiently sitting by the door since six a.m. We need more flour and we’re running low on rice and lentils. He was waiting for the latest bulletin with the bi-weekly tips on How to Handle the Beginning of the End.
“The truck should have come today,” Baba says.
“It won’t arrive, Baba. Remember the storm blocked the roads,” I remind him.
“But we need this,” he says, rocking backward and forward on his creaky wooden chair. He had chopped up several branches of wood into thin, pointed darts and lined them up in the garage. He usually tests them one by one by tossing each at Byron’s old dartboard he dug out from the bottom of some carton or other.
Byron last saw a supply truck trundle through the forest a month ago. Truckers usually come through every few weeks, but this time the fallen trees blocking the roads may have led them to assume no one remained after the last exodus. Somewhere below my ribcage and above my belly a nagging flutter persists. They have forgotten about us.
“I will take the radio to the north hill, Baba. I will contact the nearest supply station,” I say.
“The truck is almost fixed!” Baba’s white mustache puffs up and settles down. “We can take it out tomorrow. And you are not going anywhere.”
I have to clench my fist, breathe deeply and close my eyes. This has been my ritual for one week. This is how I transport myself outside the house, where the only sound is of trees rustling and even the questions in my head are silent.
Baba isn’t having it. He gathers his tools and looks around for Reza. “Where is that little scoundrel? One day he is crying and the other he is hiding!” He spots Reza coming down the stairs, his hair wet from the bath. He pouts at his grandfather and tries to squirm away. I watch from the kitchen sink, my hand on the kettle handle.
We are out of tea; Baba will be upset. He stands against the open doorway, his bent body framed by gold light, dappled with brown shadows from the looming clouds. I feel an old familiar ache in my shoulders, in the small of my back, and a small hint of bile in my throat. I want to spit it out but I worry I will scream instead.
Be the solution, not part of the problem, I keep whispering to myself.
I heard this refrain ten years ago when we arrived on these shores. “Be the solution, not part of the problem,” shouted the old woman handing out the first of many bulletins along our shuffling bedraggled line of refugees in the marketplace as we were introduced to our new home.
But today another storm is coming. Baba’s shoulders, once so sturdy and squared from years in construction, are now rounded. He lumbers toward Reza, grasps him by the upper arm, and Reza squeals, “Baba-joon, you’re being cruel!” Reza the dramatist, with his head in his books or above the trees, must have pulled that line out of a fairytale. Baba pulls back awkwardly, his face reddens, and his large hand hangs above Reza like a rock teetering on the edge of a cliff. The pause catches my attention, the deliberation between his hand and the air and Reza’s receding head before Baba tucks it into his pocket. I barely feel my hand clenched around the kettle handle.
Byron emerges from the stairs behind him and Reza runs back to him, his arms outstretched, face scrunched, but Byron gives him a perfunctory pat and moves into the kitchen, opening and closing the empty tea jars.
“Baba, there is no need to be rough with the boy,” he mumbles. He is naked from the waist up; a towel hangs over his other shoulder, his back still dripping water from the bucket he has doused over himself. Baba ignores him, shuffling back towards the door, which he proceeds to bang behind him.
I don’t remember precisely when Baba became this way. Slowly, surely, his need to protect me eclipsed his love for me, perhaps even swallowed it entirely. Perhaps it was the days spent with backbreaking construction work. Perhaps it was my decision to marry Byron all those years ago.
I glance at Byron, who avoids my gaze and limps over to the red rug in the center of the living room. A twinge of annoyance passes through me. The red rug and the floorboard and the gun, his first resort when he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He tries to settle down on his haunches and I can hear his heavy breathing. He stands and kicks the carpet over with his good leg. His bad leg straightens behind him as he leans down to loosen the floorboard where we keep his gun. I watch him as he strains to keep his balance. The gun is too far inside.
Byron stumbles often, unable to bear the weight of his bad leg, where a deep scar extends from his thigh to his knee. He was injured soon after Reza was born. I found him lying on the road to our house, a pool of blood trailing behind him. He escaped a wild boar, or so he said. I did not believe him because his cuts were clean and sharp. Created by men with knives.
Early in our marriage, Byron would laugh off the hostile glances that followed him everywhere. He would tell me the others were just jealous of the fine truck he owned.
Our alienation first brought us together. Even though he was born there, he had an outsider’s face in a town being slowly occupied by more outsiders. It made him a target.
Reza is digging through the potatoes, carrots, and onions I have laid out on the kitchen counter, a vacant expression on his face. I silently step behind Byron and touch his shoulder, running my fingers around his waist the way I used to when we were newly married. Byron abruptly stands and I crouch down to retrieve the gun. He kisses me lightly on the forehead and moves to the window where his oiling equipment has been laid out. He starts cleaning the gun furiously, his arms shaking slightly as if our lives depended on it.
Ten years ago, I saw a white man for the first time. I called him White Tooth. The head of security in Colony 3 had a square pale face with scars across his chin and granite teeth, an unnaturally white one in the front, which he displayed crookedly at me. He wielded a long gun in his thickset arms and grasped Baba by the scruff of his neck as he pushed him to the trucks.
He warned Baba to keep an eye on me. I stared at the guns. Their barrels ended with a perfectly round shining nozzle that peered at me from all sides, deceptively friendly eyes winking against the sunlight bouncing off their surfaces. A thin, brittle-looking pole protruded above the eyes, like the antennae Baba used back home to capture signals from oncoming ships, our way out. I wondered if the poles were able to tell we were arriving.
Colony 3 was once a spot for hikers and adventurers, the kind who visited the forest simply to look at it, take pictures, walk around, perhaps spend the night and leave. One of the camp guards, a harsh man who vanished in one of the fires, told us naked savages used to roam this area, hunting with sticks and “fucking in plain sight.” They often said such things in front of me and I would redden and Baba would pretend he had not heard.
I watch Byron today surrounded by the detritus of our time here in his tattered vest, pants rubbed soft from wear and tear and his bedraggled, vacant face. I imagine tearing away his clothes and “fucking” him in plain sight, in front of Baba. But the image of Byron mumbling, shuffling and limping with Baba’s spears around the forest is funnier sometimes, and I fight to keep a straight face. Byron, the naked savage.
We were sent to this patch of forest in large trucks, soon after our boats hit the shore. Big men hauled me to my feet, yanked my scarf off my head as Baba shouted over the screams and crashing waves that I was his daughter. After looking at our papers, they sent me back to him. They could never be sure, they said. I was, after all, a minor. I could have been trafficked for all they knew.
As long as I came to the country willingly, there was a place for me.
With the influx of boats, there were more hoodlums and rapists. The colony residents said we brought them. But I think we newcomers had more reasons to be concerned. We were sent to a town with abandoned, barely-there houses being distributed to new residents, after unpredictable weather made most people flee.
There were very few locals remaining, aside from those waiting for us. We were the shipment that could help them kick-start markets, including black markets, and rebuild homes destroyed in fires and torrential weather. And we were the largest shipment the colony had seen. Our foreignness didn’t matter at first. The wealthy moved west, taking cheap labor with them, and the remaining townsfolk were desperate for new hands. They were a ragtag group of former soldiers, construction workers and truckers. Sometimes the truckers were construction workers; sometimes the construction workers were truckers. To me they were one and the same.
The trucks dropped us at an old railway station with broken tracks where more men with the strange guns brushed against us as we formed a line and waited for our fate. A man with curled hair and a dark face with cracked, frothing pink lips broke away from our party, dashing towards the tall trees hoping, perhaps, he would get lost in them. With a loud “Oy!” White Tooth aimed his weapon at the scrawny figure and pressed an orange button above the trigger. A small flash, a single crackle, and the man fell, his body a writhing mass. He stilled, but continued breathing and panting, punctuated by irregular twitching. My hands clapped my mouth shut, stifling my scream. White Tooth noticed me and flashed his grin again, gesturing at me to come forward. I stared dumbly back at him; he was large, but altogether beguiling — aside from Baba, I had never seen another man carry himself with such conviction.
“Are you one of those who got hit in the head on the way here?” he said. “Speak up, kid!” I was thinking about Baba’s hands, grasping my shoulders tightly as I heaved my insides into the sea. His hands hurt more than the pain in my dry throat.
I turned to look at Baba who stood stiffly in the line, his eyes straight ahead. Finally, Baba muttered through clenched teeth, “Go on child, and listen to the man.”
I inched forward until I was at the man’s waist and he bent down; his tooth shone distractedly. He smelled like an unknown form of tobacco, a low-grade pungent kind, not like the subtle musty smells that emanated from Baba in the days we could afford tobacco at home. I wanted Baba to take me back to the boats. A black glove shot out and grabbed my wrist, pulling me towards him and made me run my hands over the bitterly cold gunmetal.
“Useful things, these guns,” he said, rubbing the muzzle fondly as I stumbled back to Baba. “He’ll be fine. We avoid killing here; we’re not barbarians. But still, you new folks show up with all these ideas. Have to show you who’s boss.”
I avoided guns ever since. Until now, that is. Now the man’s glare, the way he stood, and his sneer are etched into my memory. The certainty and control with which he ordered us to our places, the way my body responded without resistance, as if he exerted an invisible power my teenage self instinctively understood. It was the gun all along.
Byron’s gun is a relic from his father’s days. This week, I found myself often cleaning it without telling him. It’s a beautiful rifle, with a smooth silver barrel that flashes when I move it, like sunlight darting through the trees in the blink of an eye. I like the feel of the gun against my bare arm, cool and certain of its purpose. I hold onto it late at night, sometimes propping it on my shoulder, standing at the porch with my legs apart surveying the silvery tops of the trees like a watchful despot. I have never shot the gun because our ammunition is precious. But I relish pressing the safety. I listen to the screws and metal strain as they disconnect the bullet from its cage. Then it’s just me and my finger and this trigger and a suspended moment of giddiness. I could capture a piece of land, build a hut to keep Reza in, plant my flag and prowl around like a bear marking her territory. The feeling ends as I remember my inability to keep quiet in the forest. I put the gun back under the floorboards. Sometimes, without meaning to, I push it in deeper, as if that could stop me from pulling it out the next night.
The garage is cluttered with tools and an endless supply of canned beans lines the shelves. Baba made us buy the beans as the shops slowly shuttered. He always thinks ahead. On a small chart fashioned out of a light wooden slab, Baba has been marking days since the first storm. One column in white chalk has lines for each set of rains, four in a row, with the fifth crossing over. Next to it is a column in red. He broke one of our clay pots and fashioned a sharp edge to serve as chalk. The red column is for the days he spotted trucks on our side of the woods. The column is very short.
Baba keeps careful track of each time the water supply tanks, or the milkman or, for today, the food supply truck will supposedly show up. I think his record keeping is more for his comfort than for our benefit. The milkman stopped his routes months ago.
These days the wind alternates between wild gusts and unsettling silence, making it harder to predict storms. Like my thoughts, it races around at night and remains calm during the day. Today is the day, Baba has been saying all week. He must gather all his strength and God-willing our problems will be solved. Today he will start up our truck, trek down to the road and try to move some of the debris and drive to the nearest station. He heard radio reports of new supplies being delivered.
I don’t believe it is so simple. I still see Baba’s hand raised above Reza’s curly hair and I imagine it falling like a sword. They used to have pictures of men with swords, black beards and turbans in the pamphlets around town. These were the men responsible for our plight, the men who forced us across the ocean, the schoolteachers told us. But the pictures looked like Baba, who had fiercely protected me from such men. In Baba’s mind, he is still a young revolutionary, who left a young wife and baby at home, enduring beatings and nail pulling in his old prison.
He often forgets his slabs and marks our walls and floors with numbers as if he never left his cell.
We escaped home many decades ago, but our air followed us across the ocean to this sleepy town in the Americas. By the time Reza was born, as the rains continued, the skies changed from grey into a kaleidoscope of color every evening, and I finally recognized home.
If we are to find help, I have to move soon. I step outside the house as Reza plays in the kitchen and Byron returns to our room. I hear movement in our garage as Baba throws more odds and ends against each other. Down a roughhewn path, littered with leaves and cracks on what once was a road, sits our red truck.
It is a blood red, cracked monstrosity. It is a creaky reminder of the last time I saw another woman, five years ago.
She was in the marketplace, by the shops where people tried to exchange their possessions before they moved west. She cradled a music cassette tape, a relic. The woman had long dark hair under a checked scarf, which could have been a torn-up tablecloth refashioned to keep her hair in control. Our eyes met across a table of cracked and dusty crockery. She had a tired, lined face but smiled and nodded at me. The woman could have been from my town. Not this one. My old town. I wanted to hug her, ask her if she had a place to live, or if her husband had gone west like the others.
I opened my mouth to say something but I heard Byron revving the truck; a deep growl rumbled across the beaten-down tracks where a few poles and plastic sheets held up the market stalls. I held tightly to my bag, pulled my jacket closer to me as the wind shifted and brought myself to return to our red truck. Byron was growing impatient and he honked once, twice, thrice with a stubborn persistence and I felt my bag of vegetables grow heavy. Reza, just a few months old at the time, was sitting in the car with him and Baba, and had started crying. I sensed Baba was annoyed as well. I glanced back briefly; the woman slipped the cassette tape into her bag.
That day signaled the beginning of the end for our red truck. As it croaked and clattered up the broken brown path, I felt a slow shudder grow from its depths, and develop into a growl.
Byron cursed and pressed the accelerator, but the truck lurched, fell forward for a brief second and then stopped in its tracks. We had to push it slowly up the path, as Byron steered and Baba muttered under his breath about having a cripple as a son-in-law.
Now I run my hand along the hood of the wasted truck, feeling thick scars where branches scratched its surface. The scars are dull white against the bright red. Like skin emerging from blood. As if our wounds might open up to reveal new selves hiding inside us all along. I pop the hood open.
I try to think of happiness and sadness as a series of moments, not as a state of being. Reza reading books and laughing is a happy moment. Byron tracing his fingers down my belly: a happy moment. But the moments come and go, and I find myself falling backward into a sense of waiting that seems to be marked by long lapses of sadness. I think of moments where the two feelings are not as clear, where happiness and sadness are marked by confusion, such as when Byron found me and saw something in me I could not have seen myself. But then again I wasn’t happy; I was relieved. But relief comes and goes so quickly and is always replaced. These days, I have added relief to my inventory of moments.
Seven years ago, Byron and I spent our first night together in the back of the red truck. I had seen it many times, crossing us in the marketplace. Its occupant was often a shadowy figure; a silhouette crouched over the wheel. The truck was one of those that traveled immeasurably long distances, taking the highway between Byron’s district and mine, racing through the forests and over the lakes every evening when roads were clear and communication was easier.
When the second wave of migrants moved west, following the wealth, Baba would pester an old lady in the marketplace for news, pamphlets, information. She would wail in a mournful voice how God was dead, and it was up to men to solve our crisis. She waved the pamphlets in my face; thick letters advertising HUNTING IN THE NEW WORLD, HOW TO AVOID SCAVENGERS AND PROTECT YOUR FAMILY, FREE SUBSCRIPTIONS FOR EARLY BIRDS, GRAB ONE BEFORE YOU’RE THE NEXT CASUALTY.
Byron later told me how he thought I was an easy lay from the way I carried myself in the market. I hung back as Baba negotiated for food, loitered around the impractical things, the old movies discarded in crates, the unraveled cassettes piled into the back of each stall. He reminded me of White Tooth. Not in appearance. Byron was dark, while the head of security had a pasty face with blond bristles. It was in his walk with his shoulders back, hands half in his pockets, confident but casual. He evidently was at ease. He sidled up behind me when Baba’s back was turned.
“My truck can play one of those for you,” he whispered into my hair and I jumped, dropping “Cream of the Fifties” onto the dusty ground. Byron smirked and picked it up for me.
“I have a player in my car.” He gestured towards his red truck, parked a few feet away. “Don’t worry, it’s not needed for another few hours.”
Truckers were bad news, according to Baba. They looked for young girls to lure into their vehicles and the girls were never heard from again. But the colonies needed truckers. They transported people, food, and weapons, everything we were desperate for.
After our first encounter, I would find ways to sneak into his truck for a few hours while Baba was away and we would race across the hills and valleys, trundling along as Byron regaled me with stories of his hunting prowess. I listened, open-mouthed as he recalled how he narrowly avoided being impaled by a wild boar, raced his truck through a heavily wooded section of the forest and hit a deer, bringing it home for dinner. “But,” he said, “I keep breaking the rules. Good hunters, my father told me, know how to avoid alerting the animals. So I learned how to blend in.”
“Can’t animals smell you?” I asked.
“That’s why we rub ourselves over with dirt, bird droppings, anything we find on the forest floor,” he said.
He laughed at me as I made a face. “It’s necessary. A wild boar is relaxed in a familiar environment. A sound, a movement, a step out of the ordinary and he’s onto you faster than a horny soldier on a hooker.” I blushed and he grinned again.
He then told me he was in love with me, hook, line, and sinker. I found his choice of words strange.
The truck has a massive open-back, with a tarp stuffed into one corner, and a dented fender marking its long and turbulent life. A yawning hole in the roof marks the time a branch fell through it during a bad storm. Now we often tie a tarp over the hole since the town mechanic left months ago. But on particularly nice evenings the tips of the trees are bathed in reds and mustard hues as if on fire, and I let Reza climb onto the truck and play. He likes screaming loudly at the trees until they explode into a stream of birds. We are always so excited to see the birds. We scream dee dee dee or caw caw caw and make up our own sounds as we play.
Perhaps one day we will sprout wings and no longer need the truck.
Byron has put on a vest; it sticks to his back as he rubs the towel over his curly head. Some of his hair sticks out around his ears. He waits on the porch and watches Baba kick the fender in, again and again. I stand next to him, my hands wiped, Reza hanging onto my hip. I try to look unconcerned. My script is ready.
With a grunt, Baba slams his hand onto the hood. With a hesitant creak, it pops open and Baba fiddles with its innards. His upper body is submerged so deeply under the car hood, I imagine he is tangled amongst a complex web of intestines, veins and muscles and he will emerge covered in blood and other fluids. When he does emerge, his hands are darkened. He wipes some of the pipes, tightens various nuts and bolts. He climbs onto the hole-ridden seats, with foam poking out of their cushions and a metal spring that once gashed my thigh.
Byron looks discomfited. His hands hang loosely at his waist. His belly protrudes slightly from beneath his vest. Limping hesitantly he stands behind the truck ready to push as Baba revs up the engine. The truck shakes slightly, stretching, trying to wake up, but slips back into slumber. I loosen my grip on Reza. Byron seems small and almost afraid as he approaches the truck he was once so proud of. I begin to see in his gait a new slowness, a weakness I didn’t notice before. As if he is finally aware of his limitations. I feel something akin to a loosening in my chest. Perhaps I will be able to convince them.
Baba slams the steering wheel and a weak honk echoes around the trees. He tries a few more times, until the engine purrs to life. Byron starts to push, shoulder against the back, his good leg bent forward, his bad leg stretched out. He grimaces, but Baba urges him on. Byron’s face reddens, a vein bulges above his forehead, and his bad leg quivers in terror. The car jerks forward slightly, and Baba whoops in delight.
Byron groans, his head bent down, his shoulders hunched and he presses his entire torso against the back of the truck.
“Baba, just give him a moment,” I say as I step off the porch, racing towards Byron as his foot slips. Byron glares at me, daring me to take one more step. But I run to the car, and grasp his arm. He jerks away as if I have burned him. I force myself to meet his eyes. In them, there is hesitation, and behind his dark pupils a deep tunnel runs continuously backward until I can no longer see the light and somehow today, more than ever, I know he is beyond my reach.
“Who will fix your leg if you damage it more?” I say.
He looks at me as if I am a stranger. “How does it matter?” he says.
A gust of wind, a choking sound and the truck bounces on its wheels, racing ahead. Baba is laughing and Reza is clapping behind me. Byron and I look away from each other. I hold my breath; the wind lifts some of the leaves and they hang over us.
I exhale and Baba rolls down the path, showing no signs of slowing down. Reza is chasing him, laughing, his hands trying to catch the smoke streaming behind the car.
The car hurtles into the thick trunk of an oak tree, with a stomach-churning splat, like a body striking concrete. The front of the car splays outward and bits of red debris fall everywhere. I imagine blood spraying the ground, intestines slithering and rolling across the grass. Pieces of metal skin flash in the sunlight, blinding me.
Our first night together, Byron tied a tarp over the back of the truck because it started raining. Perhaps his attention provoked something in me. Perhaps I had that boldness in me all along. But I climbed on top of him that night, much to his surprise and my own. Amongst the ropes, the smell of oil and the rattling wooden crates with tins, I watched myself hold down a strange man with stronger arms than me. I returned to my body in the early hours of the morning. With his hands on my belly, I felt a rising expansion in my chest and knew if I could do this to a man, I could do anything.
Today I wonder how I let that feeling go away. Maybe it was Baba. My joy receded rapidly soon after. I knew Baba would be distraught. He had probably checked my room before going to bed and found me gone. I could have been kidnapped, lying dead in a ditch, or worse, raped. I lay back against Byron’s chest, trying not to wake him up, focusing only on the happy part. Our tarp was pale yellow marked by trickles of water running around us like we were trapped beneath fountains that were the center of many town squares at home before they ran dry. Yes, that was a happy moment.
Baba was waiting on the path as the red truck trundled back to our home the next morning. His eyes were red, his face worn, and his beard and hair in disarray. He slapped me across the face, the only time he ever raised his hand against me.
Byron now totters toward the mess collected at the bottom of the tree. Reza stands over a torn piece of metal with his thumb in his mouth and I pick him up roughly in my haste to get to Baba. Reza whimpers. A frustrated yell of “My face!” emerges from the wreckage and Byron yanks the door open. Baba tumbles out, a deep gash on his head; a pool of red blossoms over his hair and forehead. One hand is clapped over his eye and the other on his knee, which is twisted at a dangerous angle.
Byron grabs him by the shoulder and tries to lift him, but collapses under Baba’s weight. I roll Baba over, drop Reza onto Byron, and lifting Baba from below the armpits, start dragging him back to the house, but he screams loudly from the pain and I drop him. I watch him groan and pant against the damp brown and orange leaves.
“Hold Baba down,” I tell Byron. I pause and take a howling Reza in my arms and race back to the house. I deposit Reza in the living room but he holds tightly onto my legs.
“Mama, don’t go outside, the dragon will eat us both,” he begs.
“Shush! Baba-joon is hurt. Who else will help him?”
“Daddy will! Stay with me. I’ll keep you safe, Mama!” He hiccups.
“Reza, stay here and be a brave boy for Mama.”
We have a few buckets of water we gathered from the pond after our sink got clogged. I pick one up, with alcohol from the garage and strips of cloth.
Baba is sitting upright, his head still in his hands and Byron stands a few feet away, looking towards the house. He is uncomfortable, and there is an odd silence between them, odder than usual, punctuated by Baba’s heavy breathing.
I wet Baba’s face, and try to wipe the blood away but he keeps turning his head. “Byron, hold Baba’s shoulders,” I tell Byron. But Baba bats him away. “I can handle pain. I don’t need you to tell me how.”
“This is going to hurt, please just let us,” I start to say.
“He couldn’t keep the truck in check, how is he going to hold me down? Just be done with it!”
I pour alcohol onto the cloth with shaking hands. It drips over my fingers and I have to steady myself. Cradling the back of Baba’s head with one hand, pushing my knees behind his back to keep him from falling over, I press the cloth to his forehead and he grips it without a sound, his mouth clenched. I tie it around his forehead. “Byron, give me another,” I say, but Byron has left.
His vest is stained with Baba’s blood and I watch him limping to the house. Perhaps he is checking on Reza but I know he has no intention of coming back.
Baba breathes deeply now, but his leg is still twisted at an awkward angle. “It seems I am to become like your husband, my dear,” he chuckles, but I don’t find it very funny.
“Try to walk; you need to put your leg up,” I say.
Inside the house, Byron is staring out the window as Reza rolls an old toy car back and forth. I lay Baba down on the moth-eaten couch where he gazes at the ceiling.
“Now what?” he says. “We can’t leave the house, the car is broken. How long can we wait for someone to bring supplies?”
“You need medical attention,” I say. “I am going to take the radio transmitter outside to find a good spot and hopefully someone is still at the station.”
“You can’t go alone,” Byron says as he lumbers towards the kitchen. “And neither I, nor your father are in any condition to go up some hill with you. Give it a few days, someone will turn up.”
“You poor fool.” Baba sits up. “No one is coming here. But I will wait a few days and take the radio out. My leg is just sprained, and I’ve handled worse.”
He glares at Byron, daring him to speak more and Byron looks back at him, his expression calm, but something moves behind his eyes. It’s a reddening, a glimmer of lightning before the storm. I’ve seen that look before, many times in fact, when Byron could race down a hill or climb up a tree without hesitation. Panic rises to my throat, and I focus on the red rug, where Byron plants his feet.
Reza steps across to Baba and places his head against his chest. An attempted peace offering, since neither Byron nor I would want to look his way. Baba breathes heavily, his eyes upturned, but he jerks when Reza starts crying again. With a groan, Baba sits up. His hand leaves his chest and arcs through the air, an already bloodied sword that meets Reza’s cheek with a soft clap, softer than it should be and Reza falls against the dark wooden floor.
I run, or float, or fly to Reza as Baba says something, but I don’t hear him.
“He is a boy now, don’t fuss over him,” he says, but his words are weak, they sink into the carpet and are forgotten. I pick up Reza, and stand over Baba who shrinks onto the couch.
“Don’t touch my son again. And don’t try fixing the car because it won’t work after the mess you created,” I say. I try to keep my voice steady and hope Baba cannot hear my hesitation. He looks at his hands pressing down on his belly.
A trickle of dust floats down from the ceiling, glittering against the dark wood. Our house is falling down around us as I fight back tears. I carry Reza to my room and lock the door behind us. Byron does not move from the window.
We moved into this home a year after we were coughed out by the ocean. When we first saw it, our assigned house had half collapsed from heavy rains. Tattered curtains with pink flowers and broken crockery littered the floor. I imagined it once belonged to a wealthy elderly couple. The kitchen surfaces were white tiled and what remained of the walls were sunflower yellow. I was sure the lady of the house was an elderly Doris Day. Doris Day videos ran repeatedly on the old television set up in our temporary campsite, our first home in America.
I imagined she had shiny blond helmet hair, a glittering smile, and a pert, perfect waist and bottom invisible under vast skirts. Maybe this older version liked the occasional straight pants for the widened hips age had given her. She would have spent her days gathering flowers for the bedroom as her husband, a gruff bearded fellow with kindly eyes, trucked up and down the state. The kind of lady who grew herbs in clay pots outside the front door. I wanted her assurance around the house, her belonging, and the way she pranced with her shoulders, back and chest out.
I forced myself to appreciate Doris Day because the security teams loved her movies. She danced and sang her way into my life through a rickety television with a cracked screen. Newcomers like me were pulled in by her golden hair and picture-perfect surroundings. At first, her smooth and dull voice grated at me. It was too controlled. But after one week, I found myself relaxing to her grandmotherly trilling, even though she looked twenty when she sang “Que sera sera.” On nights when the rain fell hard, she soared through the downpour. She lulled us to sleep under the plastic sheets serving as our homes for a few months. Baba took to humming her tunes as he rebuilt our roof. When it continued leaking, he would hold me tightly against him and purr, “Whatever will be, will be” in a thick voice that tugged at the r’s and strained at the w’s. But he mostly sat amidst the ruins of another’s life, staring straight ahead into the forest, his hands hanging limply by his sides, hammer, nails, other tools discarded on the ground.
At the time, Baba was assigned to a team of construction workers. He was out of place in his overly large hand-me-down clothes and his indecipherable English. The workers towered over him. He could barely understand their rolling accents. Eventually they found common ground, as they ventured into their pasts that were marked by similar tragedies to ours. Baba became the sympathetic listener in their midst.
When he was gone, working at the new houses that were to become our colony, I curled up in our tent, frozen by my loneliness and inability to comprehend anything anyone said to me. I watched the security men flex their arms outside their tent, race some of the young boys back and forth among the trees, but I stayed inside until Baba came home because he always worried about me while he was away and I wanted to put him at ease.
The sky would turn grey in the evenings before it rained. And it rained almost every night. I lay in Baba’s lap, peering through our brittle windows and crying because I thought the sun had died. The truth is, as we were later taught in school, the more pollution, the more color during a sunset. Something to do with greenhouse gases swirling around us, products of our consumption, digestion and secretion, an endless cycle of the dirt within and around our bodies.
He always shook his head at the supplies being sent our way. “This is paper!” Baba exclaimed. “It will not last one night in the rain!” America’s cardboard-like walls were an affront to Baba, who vowed to build us a strong home with his own bare hands. He tore down Doris’s sunflower yellow wallpaper.
Today our walls have an inner layer of wood, surrounding rock that Baba used as a foundation. The house is small; its interior walls have been broken, remade and reconfigured to fit a changing family. A long verandah runs around it, raised slightly above the ground for heavy rains. Baba built a wooden garage behind the house that began as a thatched hut and slowly grew into his private fortress where he spent hours building, preparing and planning. “Our family is only as strong as the house we are in,” he says. “Without a roof over our heads, we are just tiny fish waiting for the storm to pull us back into the wider dangerous ocean.” Baba was filled with snippets of wisdom.
I cradle a sleeping Reza in my arms as I step outside the house. Now the sky is a pale reminder of the day he was born and I take it as a good sign. I trudge back down the path, past the ruins of our red truck. Reza’s drool wets my shoulder, and the radio is slung across my back, knocking against my legs every now and then. Byron’s gun also hangs on my other shoulder — a necessary precaution. I walk through the forest without a care for the noise I make. Reza wakes up with the jostling and looks around.
“Mama, where are we going?” he asks with bleary eyes.
“We are going to try and get some help for Baba-joon and Papa, my love,” I say.
He tenses, as if he can sense my true intention. “But what if we’re attacked?” he asks. “Did you bring Papa’s gun?”
“Of course I did!” I laugh. “But remember you told me you would protect me? I know I’ll be fine with you!” I am panting slightly — we have reached an incline.
“Yes, Mama!” he smiles. “But I need Papa’s gun! I need to shoot the dragon!”
“And if it ever attacks, I promise you, you can pick a fight with it, but right now, we are going to find help.” The path grows thinner. I know there is one that leads to a hill, where we have caught a radio frequency before.
It’s a long shot, but I have to try something. A small part inside me, somewhere between the heart and the intestines, tells me I will keep walking with Reza. Walking through the forest until I see other signs of life and I’ve left my father and husband behind.
I step through the undergrowth and the gun clatters dangerously. Did I unlock the safety? I should check. I stop, let Reza down and he runs around the trees, excited to be out of bed, and playing in the crisp morning air. I silence him with a hush. I think about going back; this is a foolish errand. I will die in the forest, impaled by a boar, or from pneumonia after being drenched in the rain. Then Reza, poor Reza, will die too. And Baba or Byron, if Baba still can’t stand by then, will find our bodies on the forest floor, strewn with dull red, orange and yellow leaves. We would be there for so long that Byron might even trip over my leg.
I shake myself out of these doubts. I am now part of the forest; I can’t scare away prey. I don’t believe Byron any more, I think prey are as aware of us as we are of them. We are no longer strangers to the forest.
I have to make a decision, but I also have to check the gun. All those nights spent pressing it lovingly against my arm doesn’t prepare me for the possibility of actually using it. Reza continues to run around the trees; I point the gun down and narrow my eyes to check the safety under the shadow of the trees when a rustle, a crackle interrupts me. I glance up, jerking the gun off the ground and with a click, a snap, it fires, the sound echoing off the trees, sending birds chirping excitedly into the morning air. Reza screams and falls backward, his bounce interrupted by the gunshot, and I can only hear a steady ringing in my ears, and the trees whispering above, and Reza’s distant laugh from another day spent on the red truck.
He moves and sits up with tears in his eyes and I grasp him, checking his body. There is no sign of injury. The bullet must have sunk into a tree. Before I know it I am holding Reza to my chest and crying because I have just confirmed everything Baba and Byron think of me. I usually cry quietly, and on Baba’s shoulder, but now I don’t hold back. My voice emerges like an injured animal, ugly and alien to this forest and these trees. Reza hugs me back tightly, reassuring, calming.
I suddenly hear voices growing in the distance. A shout, punctuated by groans, uneven footfalls through the forest and I realize Baba and Byron are coming toward us. They heard the shot and I curse myself. I lift up Reza again and, discarding the gun, race into the undergrowth, toward the hill.
My building resentment spurs me on. I race past the ruins of an old house; its door hangs open from hinges that are still standing, a lonely remnant of a failed past, and I keep running. Reza’s head bounces against my shoulder but he does not protest; he is eerily silent. His cheek is still bright red from Baba’s hand.
I spot a thicket of bushes and a small space between two rocks and push Reza in, following him until both of us are tightly ensconced. I’m still teary-eyed so he curls against me, drawing his arms tightly around my neck.
Uneven footsteps move past us, almost shaking the ground beneath us. Byron stumbles through the woods and Baba follows him. Baba is calling my name, but I can sense another note of desperation in his voice, as if he already knows I am long gone.
A pair of torn boots limps past our line of vision. I feel Reza start, but he says nothing. For a brief moment, I wonder if I should just give up, and go back. But the boots keep walking, and recede into the forest, and I feel something lift from my chest. I measure our options. We can try to radio from the hilltop. There is the possibility of help from the nearest stationmaster or we could go back and face Baba and Byron’s anger.
A few hours go by, or maybe a few minutes, and we emerge. Reza takes my hand and pulls me forward, away from home, and the decision is made for me.
Reza was born early in the morning five years ago. I woke up next to Byron in our new house, feeling two persistent feet slamming against my belly, an assertive thing inside me. Mine.
I was nauseous, like someone had forced a bucket of thick milk down my throat. Something tightened in my chest, a feeling of dread marked by a slow suffocation. Even then I knew this measure of peace would not last. I had to leave the house in search of air.
I rolled slowly out of bed, gently removing Byron’s hand from my belly. It found its way under my shirt, resting on the navel, but he was still fast asleep. He turned over and mumbled something to the other wall. I smiled, pulled on a jacket and found myself outside, under a steadily paling sky. A few stars were still glimmering and, like a miracle, it hadn’t rained all night so the only dampness in the grass was morning dew.
I walked down the path away from our house and without realizing it, kept making my way into the forest, sidestepping the rocks and branches strewn everywhere. With one hand to my belly, I felt lighter with every step. Deeper in the forest I remembered Byron warning me about sudden noises and I stopped mid-step. Then I remembered I was not even hunting; why would I care about scaring away prey? I wished I had taken the gun out of the floorboard, if only to protect myself.
I had never been alone in the forest before. With Byron and Baba there, it was impossible. They made a point to protect me from animals they described often enough that I knew how serious they were. I never saw any of them myself. I hadn’t encountered wild boar, but I trusted they knew what they were talking about.
I was actually mistaken. I was never really alone in the forest, because Reza was suspended in my belly, his head ready to poke through the opening to this strange, new world, where sudden sounds were not welcome. I strained my ears; I had walked through these woods silently countless times with Baba, the consummate hunter, and then Byron. Now every sound seemed sudden, unpredictable, unexpected. If I crushed a branch under my feet, I heard a dozen other small branches crackling around me. I saw strange shapes among the trees; I heard unfamiliar sounds that didn’t belong to the chickadees, because this forest was nothing like what the soldiers had taught us, what Baba and Byron taught me.
But it could have been the pregnancy playing tricks with my mind. I felt tired and knelt onto the ground. My feet were already damp when I felt wetness between my legs followed by pain.
I spread out, my back to a tall oak and my legs on the cold grass, wondering how I would manage this without killing the baby and myself. By now Baba and Byron would have noticed I was gone and would be scouring the woods. I knew the way back. I could scream until someone heard me, or I could try to walk. I felt Reza inside me like a growing ache. I worried he felt it too. I would protect him from such pain. My head rolled against the tree and I saw the sky was bright, completely still, and blue. It had never been bluer in the years we had lived here, and for a moment I was the first woman on earth, about to give birth to the first child.
Reza and I are looking over the trees from the hillside and I fumble with the radio. The radio has a long antenna that I stretch further, as if a few inches might make a difference.
I wonder what Reza thinks of me, but I also wonder if it really matters in the end. I push the guilt away, into the floorboards, and watch the steadily growing clouds in the distance.
If we are rescued, I will find a way west. If we can survive here for a few days, I can find a new settlement, a new house and find a way to make it west anyway. Or we can search for the boats and go back. I don’t know where “back” is. I don’t even know if “back” still exists. I don’t know where is worse, there or here?
I twist and turn some levers, leaning over the crackling noise hoping for a voice on the other side. The crackling is indistinguishable from the wind, the rustling trees and the oncoming clouds. The radio stutters, pauses. I hear someone. It couldn’t be the stationmaster; perhaps it is a distant ship arriving to take us to the old country.
I point the antenna this way and that, and a ray of sunlight illuminates our patch of hill, momentarily submerging us in a fiery blaze. A voice crackles, and vanishes again, returns, and vanishes, and returns. Reza whoops in delight, running up the hill and rolling down, giggling and buoyed by hope and I don’t have the heart to stop him. Is this a happy moment?